Jonathan May wasn’t on stage for the final performance of his career. The award-winning conductor wasn’t in the crowd or waiting in the wings. He was in the music, as his first note bowed to life from the strings of a violin and soared across the stage, before settling in the rafters as a symphony arose from dozens of young musicians below.
This wasn’t just a performance — it was a final goodbye. The white ribbons circling the arms of May’s young pupils were a clue. Some had known their teacher since they could barely walk. Even then, he knew they could play. May would win accolades worldwide during his career spanning more than three decades tutoring in the language of music.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon inside the Trinity Prep theater, May’s lifetime of work culminated in a magnum opus, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” performed for the last time one month after his death.
“You must adjust,” May had told his students over and over again. The scale of the production of “The Mikado,” which brought together the theater and entire symphony on stage at the same time, had never been matched before at Trinity. When the symphony could barely fit on stage, they adjusted. When the production’s size forced it to spill out onto the theater floor, they adjusted.
A month before the curtain would rise on his dream, the symphony’s conductor and longtime mentor passed away on a Saturday afternoon. It would be the biggest adjustment of all.
Coming back from a weekend in which word of May’s death spread quickly among students, colleagues and friends, the rehearsal room was oddly quiet Monday morning.
“When we came back to school Monday, nobody played, nobody sang, we just talked about Jonathan,” Director Janine Papin said. “But everyone knew we’d have to go on.”
Assistant Conductor Brian Beute had only worked with percussion and wind instruments for the production before that first day. Even still, over the course of the next few weeks he took the conductor’s wand and weaved together the final stitches of symphony and percussion that would form the backdrop of the most complicated performance ever played upon the Trinity Prep stage.
That ability to adapt, Beute said, came from May, with whom he’d collaborated for six years at Trinity Prep.
“He imparted so much skill and musical ability in me,” Beute said. “He was an educator; he was a mentor and he was a friend.”
In a moment, Beute was tasked with bringing the culminating vision of his friend and mentor to life. He leapt at the chance to repay his teacher. Only four weeks later, he was on stage dressed in black, readying to give a final thank-you with wand in hand.
On the theater side, production had been working in earnest as costumes came directly from Japan, and makeup became a transformative art to create a distinctly Japanese look among the multi-ethnic cast.
Fast forward to 2:13 p.m. Sunday, March 28, 17 minutes before showtime. Inside a small white cinderblock room, hidden behind the stage’s back wall, a small chorus of voices rises and grows, singing notes without words, soon conscripting an entire room filled with teens in stark pale white-and-black makeup. The chorus continues to rise in volume and frenzy as musical director Patrick Nugent whistles through three octaves on a tuning harmonica, readying dozens of voices at once as the sound rises to a crescendo, then stops. It’s almost showtime.
Now that same group of students, garbed in kimonos and black wigs, forms a tight circle that still spans the breadth of this small back room. In these same slight confines, they had rushed through hours of hair and makeup to turn them into Nanki, Yum Yum, Pitti Sing and dozens more before arriving at this moment.
As the players circle around her, Papin stands in a red Japanese blouse ready to give her players a final pep talk before they flood onto the stage.
“I do not ever want to see high school theater on this stage,” Papin had told her students. “You’re all better than that. This isn’t just high school theater. This is theater. You can impress; you can shine. … Play to make Jonathan proud.”
Racing toward the stage with a rush of flitting feet along the auditorium’s side walkways, the cast brought to life the complex light comedy of a royal son hiding from his destiny, but drawn by love to a terrible fate. All the while, the music played in perfect harmony, a testament to preparation that had taken months leading up to the final curtain.
Alighting the stage as their voices echoed the last note of the final act, the cast and symphony bowed to an ovation from an audience on its feet that resounded for more than 10 minutes. The crew, along with Papin and an army of production assistants, all walked out to join the celebration.
They all had known this would be the final cheer for their departed friend and mentor.
“He taught me to be the best person I could be,” Collin Powell, 17, said. “He told us that no matter what happens, we’ll make it work.”
Celebrating on stage before the lights faded to black for the last time on May’s opus, cast and crew hugged each other in tears.
And in her final moment in the spotlight at the center of the stage, her voice drowned in a roar of applause, Papin gazed out just beyond the audience as she whispered a silent thank you — to a friend.